Keeping the Tribe During Leadership Transition

After 25 years at the helm of the WD-40 Company, Garry Ridge is completing what he calls his “leadership apprenticeship” and stepping down as CEO.

WD-40 famously has what they call a “tribe culture” rooted in the idea that people work together to improve each other’s lives at home and at work. In this episode, Garry gives us a dose of mentorship on building culture and maintaining it during times of transition. As you listen, you’ll learn how to clearly define executable values strong enough to support change and hear the three most powerful words a leader can use.

Truth You Can Act On

1. Don’t Do It Alone

Let’s go back to our tribal promise which is a group of people who come together to protect and feed each other. Our just cause is to make life better at home and at work. If you think about our theory on failure, the thing about our tribal behavior is we don’t make mistakes. We have what we call learning moments. A learning moment is a positive or negative outcome of any situation that needs to be openly and freely shared to benefit all people. So part of this togetherness of a tribe is it creates psychological safety, reduces fear, and makes vulnerability a comfort zone instead of a discomfort zone.

2. Say “I Don’t Know”

Get comfortable with the three most powerful words you’ll ever have in your leadership notebook. Those three words are, ‘I don’t know.’ Get comfortable not knowing because if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room. You need to have and develop people around you who have specialized skills. And that’s one of the attributes of the tribe.  The other thing is you need to be a forever learner and a forever teacher. If you think about the role and the responsibility of a leader—or what we call a coach at the WD-40 company—we don’t have any managers, everyone’s called a coach. Our job is to be learners and teachers. If you reflect on the indigenous Australians, many years ago if you were to observe a tribal meeting, you would see the elder tribe members teaching the younger tribe members how to throw boomerangs. Why? Because without a boomerang, you wouldn’t survive. So, the most important things to know are you’re not doing it alone, it’s okay not to know, be a learner and teacher and teach a lot of people to throw boomerangs.

3. Disrupt Yourself and Grow

The greatest opportunities you have as a leader in life is when you disrupt yourself. And that was truly disruption when I moved 8,000 plus miles across the world. I arrived in San Diego on July 17th, 1994 and I worked mainly in the international side of our business. And then in 1997, the CEO retired and for some reason the board thought I might be a good person to have the privilege to lead the company. And on October 7th, 1997 I was given the privilege to lead as CEO and have been on that journey until now.

4. Tap Into Your Superpowers Supporting

When looking to transition, ask yourself-do you know the key important aspects of the person that you need to lead into the future? And remember, you will never replace yourself. That’s not what you’re doing. You’re providing a platform for a new leader. A lot of people have said to me, ‘Steve’s not Gary’. And I say, ‘That’s lucky because it’s not about replacing me. It’s about creating a platform over a period of time that a new leader can come and move through the organization and lead it into the future.’ The other thing that’s really important is if you think about what the foundation of any business is, it’s their values. So do you as an organization have a clearly defined set of executable values that are acting as the foundation? So that whoever comes as the leader, if they should, in any way, stumble, the foundation will keep them strong.

5. Empathy Eats Ego

Don’t be a soul-sucking leader. A soul-sucking leader has attributes that don’t lean into people. The soul-sucking leader thinks they’re corporate royalty, they must always be right, they love to micromanage, they hate feedback, and they don’t think learning is necessary. Where a servant leader knows it’s all about the people. You have to love your people. You have to be a coach. And learning is something that you talk about every day. But most importantly, make sure that your empathy eats your ego, and your ego doesn’t eat your empathy.

6. Culture = (Value + Behavior) x Consistency

I have an algorithm for culture, Culture = (Value + Behavior) x Consistency. The equal sign means ‘happens when,’ so to build a great culture, you have to have a clear set of values in the organization, but it’s the behavior of the leaders that is really the toxin that goes into what I call the Petri dish of culture. When I was going to school in Australia years ago, my science teacher gave me a Petri dish and said, ‘Okay, we’re going to grow culture in this Petri dish. But we want to grow good culture. What’s important? Number one, what you put into it. And number two, how you take care of it.’ How we take care of it with our behavior is we are going to watch that Petri dish every day. And as leaders, we are going to love that Petri dish enough to be able to nurture it. But we’re also going to be brave enough to take out any toxins that are getting in that Petri dish or treat those toxins, so they don’t send the culture sour.


Book Recommendation:

Connect with Garry:

Listen to the full episode: 156: Keeping the Tribe During Leadership Transition with Garry Ridge

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